Drilling down on offshore drilling

Published 8:42 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2008

By Staff
If polls are to be believed, a segment of the public has recently swung from opposing offshore oil drilling to seeing it as a plausible response to America’s energy problems. One possible answer, of course, is that these particular polls aren’t to be believed. For example, one survey asked, “Are you worried about gas prices?” (most answer: “yes,” of course); then, “Should we drill to lower gas prices?” — not, “Should we drill even though it almost certainly won’t lower gas prices?” — which, though factual, would probably have yielded a very different response.
Let’s assume, though, that the poll numbers aren’t merely a result of how the question is asked. Let’s say that many Americans, faced with high gas prices, are in fact more inclined to support more offshore drilling. If you’re not cynical about public competence — if you think people usually have good reasons for what we believe, even when we’re wrong — this is a puzzle, because increasing offshore drilling isn’t a rational response to our energy issues.
Our energy problems can be defined in a number of ways: high gas prices; excessive dependence on foreign oil; the danger that limited energy supplies could constrain our economy; the threat our reliance on fossil fuels poses to the global environment. Offshore oil drilling doesn’t help with any of these. The Energy Information Administration has stated clearly that no oil from expanded offshore drilling would flow in the next 10 years, and even at peak production sometime after 2030, it would not have a meaningful impact on supply or prices. The amount of gas available offshore would not free us from dependence on overseas fuel. Whether the gas we burn comes from our own continental shelf or from somewhere else around the world, it will be equally destructive of the global climate. Based on the facts alone, offshore drilling isn’t a solution to any of our energy problems.
Yet, offshore drilling makes enough intuitive sense to outweigh the facts, at least for parts of the public.
Consider a pop culture example. In late July, John McCain ran a campaign ad that compared Barack Obama to Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton. In response, Hilton released a tongue-in-cheek ad of her own in which she presented herself as a candidate and thanked McCain for his endorsement. To show her policy chops, Hilton offered this faux energy policy: “Let’s drill now, to tide us over for a couple decades until our investments in renewable energy start to pay off.”
What’s important here is not whether Hilton believes this, but that it’s plausible enough to carry the punch line: this celebrity is more in touch with real issues than the candidates. Except that it shouldn’t seem plausible, since, based on the facts, tiding us over is exactly what drilling can’t do. If drilling isn’t about the facts, what’s it about?
In a world where we are bombarded with too much information to process piece by piece, most of us rely on tropes — familiar patterns or images — to decide what we think, and to sift the crucial details from the mundane. If you listen to the politicians and pundits who support drilling, they are invoking the same tropes: act now, think later. We’ve been talking too long; it’s time to act. The oil is just sitting there, deep underground, going to waste; if it’s there, we ought to use it.
In our busy society, these messages work on a couple of levels. First, they provide a simple, digestible answer: drill now. Never mind that it’s not a defensible answer to any of our actual questions. On a second level, the messages reinforce the answer by suggesting that you shouldn’t stop to ponder it — you too should act now, decide to support drilling, and move on.
Is there an alternative? Well, yes. On the policy level, the key to protecting ourselves from high gas prices, from dependence on foreign oil, even from climate change, is clear: we need greater efficiency and alternatives to gas. That’s not a single, simple solution; it’s a whole complex knot of ideas —better cars, better transit, better land use planning — any one of which offers a greater return for our economy than expanded offshore drilling.
The personal level is harder. It’s been said that wisdom is recognizing the significant in the factual, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to manage the sheer quantity of facts that flood our lives. One approach for a conscientious citizen: when it comes to public policy, ignore the tropes. Take one issue at a time and study it, setting others aside without shame until there’s time to think about them in turn. It’s not perfect, but with energy policy, it leads to a clear conclusion: drilling is not the answer.